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Wind farm noise, health issues continue to grow—and get jumbled—in Ontario

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AEI Commentary

The wild and turbulent public debate about wind farm noise issues continues to generate steady new eruptions in Ontario.  And while what’s coming out could be extremely valuable information for others struggling to support a more cautionary approach to wind farm siting, media reports are contributing to an increasingly jumbled public perception about the troubling health impacts that some wind farm neighbors have experienced.

Ironically, the spotlight currently shining on Ontario could be shedding a clear, focused light on the shortcomings in current siting standards – even Ontario’s relatively stringent ones. That light would reveal regional regulatory staffers raising concerns about whether the standards as currently applied are in fact protecting residents from undue disruption by wind farm noise, increasing anecdotal evidence from homeowners and realtors that wind farms make it harder to sell homes at their fair value, and telling examples of homes bought at market value by wind developers and later sold at large losses.  Instead, these important and fascinating stories are being jumbled into a far less coherent mess of public perception, with negative health impacts becoming the dominant theme. (See the final paragraphs of this post for AEI’s prescription for moving forward more constructively.)

As real as the health effects can be — there’s no doubt that some nearby neighbors have struggled mightily with them, to the point of leaving their homes to find relief — it doesn’t serve the public to conflate every noise complaint with a health complaint, or to distort the sources of noise complaints to make the suffering of the most afflicted appear to be far more widespread.  This is, unfortunately, the effect of recent media reports from Ontario, most notably a recent CBC report that appeared under the headline, “Ontario Wind Farm Health Risks Downplayed.” This report’s most flagrant distortion was the claim hundreds of wind turbine health complaints were received by the Ministry of the Environment, though one couple who complained were rebuffed by developers and told they were the only ones with a problem.  The “hundreds” of health complaints turn out to include over 200 noise complaints filed about a transformer station, with just 27 filed about wind turbine noise, 21 of these after the MOE had begun doing formal noise assessment at the home of the couple in question. While the transformer noise had been in the news previously, when a nearby homeowner received a reduction in his assessed value after complaining, these were noise complaints, not reports of health effects. It’s also not specified how many of the 27 turbine noise complaints came from different people–the CBC says that this couple filed repeated complaints during the first few months of wind farm operation. Their home, 1500 feet from the nearest turbine, was bought by the developer less than a year later, along with three to five others.

This home, as it turned out, was experiencing sound levels of up to 43-44dB during turbine operations, 3-4db over the regulatory limit.  This is the key take-away message here: 43dB turbine noise created a severe enough impact on the residents that the company felt that purchasing their home was an appropriate response – this is a noise level below many regulatory limits, and barely above the rest.  It’s a compelling indication that much lower sound limits may be in order, at least in come types of communities. A similar message comes from many other places where widespread noise complaints occur at sound levels just under or just over regulatory limits; the allowable noise limits are clearly higher than these particular communities can easily live with.

In pointing out the exaggerated numbers in the CBC report, I’m not trying to minimize the degree of noise issues, or even health issues, nor to discount the importance of listening to those who have spoken out about their experiences near wind farms. We can assume that the number of people who file formal complaints with regulatory authorities is far less than those struggling with the noise in their lives. Yet the stories of lives disrupted by wind farms are compelling enough without exaggerating the numbers or implying that every noise complaint is also a health impact story.  The noise itself, sometimes augmented by vibration in homes, is the driver behind most of the complaints, with sleep disruption often but not always a key problem noted by neighbors.  Noise annoyance is also central to the question of whether nearby turbines reduce property values.

The second piece of striking new information to come out in the past month is that a wind developer that bought several Ontario homes (including the one in question above) later sold them for far below the previous market values: “Canadian Hydro Developers bought out four different owners for $500,000, $350,000, $305,000 and $302,670. The company then resold each property, respectively, for $288,400, $175,000, $278,000 and $215,000. In total, Canadian Hydro absorbed just over half a million dollars in losses on those four properties.” This flies in the face of industry claims that there are no property value impacts near wind farms, and that wind developments can’t afford to provide any sort of property value guarantees. At another Ontario wind farm, a different developer bought four homes after residents could not live with the noise.

By stressing the health impacts, both the media and local community groups are focusing on what sounds like the most dramatic story, and a rationale that can get the attention of regulators and the general public.  Yet it’s a shaky foundation for actually moving the public discussion of wind turbine setbacks forward in a constructive way. There’s still a shortage of direct cause-effect evidence, since usually only a small proportion of nearby neighbors report serious health effects, and in ranching communities where noise tolerance in general is higher (and where noise limits are 50dB or higher), health problems rarely crop up. I for one don’t doubt that health effects are real, often triggered by sleep disruption and stress after peaceful rural soundscapes are altered by the introduction of turbines, which frequently become the loudest sound in homes and yards. Yet it’s the new turbine sound itself, and the ways that it changes the nature of rural place, that is the more compelling foundation from which to raise questions about current siting standards.

While the wind industry will rightfully resist the idea that it’s willfully causing widespread health impacts (the liability issues making this topic a non-starter), there is no longer any real question about the fact that turbines are often the dominant feature of the quiet local soundscape within a half mile or more. Even wind developers are beginning to acknowledge that much at this point – and so this is a more fruitful starting point for real dialogue on moving siting standards forward in ways that reflect the unexpected impact on many neighbors.  It won’t take that much to greatly reduce the problem: lowering the sound limits by 5-10dB (to 30-35dB), as suggested by many acousticians, and even some MOE field officers, combined with provisions allowing closer siting to homes of residents who don’t mind sometimes hearing turbines, would go a long way to reducing community noise issues. By addressing the noise directly, we would also greatly reduce or eliminate the direct and indirect health impacts, as well as removing the primary driver that fuels fears of property value reductions.

For more on AEI’s perspective on wind farm noise issues and siting standards, see our recent report, Wind Farm Noise 2011, available at the AEI Wind Farm Noise Resources page.

Update, 10/17/11: Better late than never in following up on the election results from Ontario, where opposition to wind farm development was a major campaign issue.  Seven Liberal incumbants were defeated, including environment minister John Wilkinson; the Liberals fell one seat short of having a clear majority in the provincial parliament. Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty said his “major minority” indicates a mandate to continue to pursue the green energy agenda, while Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak said, “No longer can Dalton McGuinty make unilateral decisions without reaching out for support.”

For more on wind and health: I recently came across a series of video interviews with residents in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where an especially high concentration of neighbors is struggling with noise issues.  The interviews, conducted by Nina Pierpont, present a fairly straightforward picture of what some wind farm neighbors experience.  I watched just a couple so far (Neil Anderson and Mark Cool) and found both to be down-to-earth and clear in their descriptions, avoiding hyperbole and offering a good sense of the variations in their experiences.

12 Responses to “Wind farm noise, health issues continue to grow—and get jumbled—in Ontario”

  1. Mike Hulme Says:

    New empirical research study from a leading UK acoustician demonstrates how UK noise impact assessments and compliance testing rely on a deeply flawed wind shear assessment methodology – download from here:
    http://www.masenv.co.uk/publications

  2. C. McLean Says:

    Review of the performance of wind energy is also showing very little value wrt to CO2 or fossil fuel savings.http://www.clepair.net/windSchiphol.html
    Always interesting how Mr Cummings refuse to consider this in his assessment of how to “move forward” with wind energy.

  3. aeinews Says:

    C. McLean:
    The role of the Acoustic Ecology Institute is to consider acoustics issues. There are plenty of other people doing economic analysis and CO2 analysis. In each of these areas, there’s a massive amount of contradictory research to try to understand and synthesize; I am barely able to keep up with the acoustics side of things (and that focusing on audible sound, leaving infrasound largely to others), and would go absolutely bonkers if I felt I had to fully understand the CO2 and economics issues as well. Sorry that I’m not research/editor superman, but I just don’t have time to do justice to more than I already am covering. (and even here, as the comments below suggest, I don’t catch everything)

  4. julie Says:

    why did the chart on page 9 only comment on days of the average noise levels. If you continue to read the document the graphs beginning on page 13 clearly show the noise levels had reached close to 60 db and higher. Why were these days left out of the chart – Jan 17, 19, Dec. 19, 21? etc.

  5. BJAL Says:

    The writer of this article is making assumptions about the number of noise complaints happening without actually investigating.
    In Phase 1 of this project there was no regulation that complaints had to even be reported to the Ministry of Environment. The first phase problems, including 5 of the 6 homes that were purchased, complaints were not even documented by the Ministry of Environment.
    What is showing on these documents are numbers now over 2 years old and was immediately after phase 2 started up. We are now in late 2011. There have been more affected since these numbers and include families that have abandoned their homes. People are getting sick. It is not as simple as a new noise in their community. Most families still don’t even know who to complain to because there are no guidelines distributed to homeowners to direct people should they have a problem. They have to sort things out for themselves. This also doesn’t include all of the other working wind projects in the province where complaints have been made and there are many families suffering, including abandoned homes. People do not want to leave their homes, they HAVE to.
    There are health professionals who, unlike the government, have actually talked to the families and they recognize the serious nature of the health issues. This is a global problem and not limited to one wind project and one story reported from it.
    By the way, if you read the entire sound report at the link, you will see sound levels well above 43 dBA. They duped you too by cherry picking a couple of days at lower levels to show off in their “chart. I’m surprised that the author would miss something that obvious before making comment.

  6. aeinews Says:

    BJAL:
    I was wondering, too, about whether complaints province-wide would add up hundreds; the docs released so far don’t confirm that, but I can well imagine they would. I really don’t discount the health effects that are happening, as I tried to make clear, and have also talked to people who’ve been suffering, some of whom are clearly dealing with something other than sleep deprivation or stress-induced issues. I just fear that focusing so heavily on this aspect will lead to a decade-long bog of “data collection” when we already know that 40db can be too loud for some communities, just based on quality of life issues.

    Julie:
    I may or may not have time to dig deeper into the reported sound levels in that monitoring report; in most jurisdictions, the regulatory limit IS an average, as much as a 24-hour average, though more often a day average and a night average. In this situations, peak levels can be much higher; this is definitely an issue when considering sleep and quality of life impacts (as well as how severe other physiological reactions might be). I’m just wondering if the 43-44dB peaks are indeed averages over the regulation-defined time frame, rather than cherry-picked quieter days….? Also, for assessment, they probably need to use times when the turbine sound was clearly dominant; we’d have to have more info to know whether the 60dB peaks were turbine peaks that got averaged out by quieter times at other hours of the day, or if those high noise peaks were wind, insects, dogs, machinery, etc.

  7. Avoter Says:

    I would strongly suggest you pack up your equipment and your family and live in a vicitms home for six to twelve months while still trying to work and be productive.
    You can chat and find all the related references you want,but until you do some onsite, LONG term work of your own your assumptions mean NOTHING. Get to some long term work in the field if you are serious about industrial wind turbines and sound. Sheesh!

  8. aeinews Says:

    Avoter:
    I’m not AT ALL saying that the health problems aren’t real–I know they are for many. I’m just saying that turning all noise complaints into health issues is misleading, and that relying on health impacts as a way to change siting standards is likely to lead to a decade of “waiting for the data,” while it’s already clear that for many communities, sound near the common regulatory limits is too loud, whether due to health issues or the even more common and easy-to-understand quality of life impacts (what in Australia and New Zealand is called rural amenity). Local communities have more power to protect their quality of life (“we like our quiet nights”) than to keep industry out due to health impacts that can be argued about until everyone’s blue in the face.

    I know that for those struggling, “the data” is clear and there’s nothing to argue about, but the reality of the regulatory world is that pinning rules on health impacts requires a LOT of very detailed studies about exactly how many people hearing exactly what sound are having exactly what symptoms; this is a huge undertaking, and we don’t really know what the numbers will turn out to be, and whatever they are, there’s so many shades of grey to play with that the whole direct/indirect impact question gets bigger than it probably should be, along with who knows what other arguments that can and will be raised by those wanting to continue with the close siting standards we have now.

    I just think that stressing the health angles could be running the desire for change into a convoluted maze; it makes things more complicated than they have to be. At least for me, the goal isn’t to totally stop wind development, but to back it off from homes of unwilling neighbors (along with encouraging further development in more remote areas where no one lives), and I believe that the simpler quality of life and noise intrusion arguments can be more successful in lowering noise limits to the ballpark of 35dB, maybe 30dB with AM.

  9. Paul D Thompson Says:

    As the person who received the 50% property tax reduction I agree the initial reduction was due to the noise level but I discovered after the ARB hearing that there are much more significant issues here than just audible noise. I have been renting alternate accommodations since May 1st of 2009. In my opinion having to leave my home to get a good night sleep is most likely due to inaudible noise and possibly electrical pollution. The audible noise (the only part Ontario’s Ministry of Environment (MOE) even attempts to address and not very well) is a small percentage of the problem here now.
    As for the 200 complaints about transformer noise I have personally reported in excess of 700 days when the audible noise was annoyingly excessive. MOE must have lost some of them during the over 2 ½ years (2006 to 09) that I originally thought reporting to the spills action center might actually result in a resolution from MOE. You can call me stupid! So far the approved resolution from the MOE, the Ontario Municipal Board, the municipality etc. was to increase the size of the site and install two transformers!
    If one is bad allowing the installation of a second one and hooking up an additional 88 turbines to the grid at this location will make it all better right?

  10. Catherine Bayne Says:

    “At least for me, the goal isn’t to totally stop wind development, but to back it off from homes of unwilling neighbors (along with encouraging further development in more remote areas where no one lives),”

    The submissions above reflect a perception of your now-openly-stated position. Most who have been dealing with this issue for any length of time now have a sixth sense for the tunnel-vision experts acquire around Big Wind.

    Properly Interpreting the Epidemiologic Evidence About the Health Effects of Industrial Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents
    Carl V. Phillips1 Abstract
    Bulletin of Science,Technology & Society 31(4) 303–315 © 2011 SAGE Publications Reprints and permission: http://www. sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0270467611412554 http://bsts.sagepub.com
    There is overwhelming evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder- type diseases, at a nontrivial rate.The bulk of the evidence takes the form of thousands of adverse event reports.There is also a small amount of systematically gathered data.The adverse event reports provide compelling evidence of the seriousness of the problems and of causation in this case because of their volume, the ease of observing exposure and outcome incidence, and case-crossover data. Proponents of turbines have sought to deny these problems by making a collection of contradictory claims including that the evidence does not “count,” the outcomes are not “real” diseases, the outcomes are the victims’ own fault, and that acoustical models cannot explain why there are health problems so the problems must not exist.These claims appeared to have swayed many nonexpert observers, though they are easily debunked. Moreover, though the failure of models to explain the observed problems does not deny the problems, it does mean that we do not know what, other than kilometers of distance, could sufficiently mitigate the effects.There has been no policy analysis that justifies imposing these effects on local residents.The attempts to deny the evidence cannot be seen as honest scientific disagreement and represent either gross incompetence or intentional bias.

    And it takes but a couple of minutes here:
    http://www.atinstitute.org/ati-environmental-law-center-v-state-of-colorado-renewables-mandate-pt-1-pollution/
    to understand at a basic level why Big Wind is a sWINDle.

  11. Morkie Yorktese Puppies Says:

    I hope that people concern will give attention to this issue and give an immediate solution. It seems that the resident nearby the farm are suffering from too much noise. Maybe the farm management can give a consideration to the people that lives in there.

  12. Greg Schmalz Says:

    Visit windconcerns web site and see what we are up against. In the resort town of Port Elgin Ontario the CAW had approval granted in 2005 to put up a turbine (Enercon E48 @ 250 ft.)at their Family Education Center to supply themselves with power before any setback regs were in place. Out town fought it on zoning till 2007 and lost on appeal.It’s 200 ft from their 300 room hotel complex and less than 1,000 ft. from 100 homes in the heart of a tourist beach area. Just 2 weeks ago they took out the building permit.Current goverment setbacks are 1815 ft and the Town has a 6,600 ft policy but they are grandfathered in. Then in 2010 Caw got a FITT Contract from the government and will SELL it’s power to the grid for profit vs using it themselves as it told residents in 2005 when wind issues weren’t even on our radar.
    Needless to say the community is outraged that a huge union that preaches health and safety would force an unwanted turbine on residents disrespecting their health and safety by building it a location that if applied for
    today would not be approved. And doing it all under the premise of promoting the green economy for it’s membership at it’s education facility.facility

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